You Must Remember This: American Samoa


Judge Gardner

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Judge Robert Gardner, Chief Justice in American Samoa

Courtesy of Nancy Gardner

My parents spent three years in American Samoa when my father was appointed Chief Justice of the court there. This was before the Internet and cell phones, and my mother did not believe in spending a lot of money on long distance, particularly if it involved trunk lines, so we communicated almost exclusively by mail. After two years, I decided a visit was in order, just to see for myself that all was fine, so my daughter and I set off.

I don’t know how it is today, but then you took the flight to Honolulu where you had a six-hour layover. This meant finding a bench in an unoccupied portion of the airport and trying to get a few winks – hopeless. Then we boarded the plane for a six-hour jaunt to Samoa. It was one of the more interesting flights I’ve taken. The plane was full of people, many of whom looked like they played in the NFL, and the plane was not only full of people but of packages. Everything had to be imported, so if you went off island, you came back with as much stuff as you could manage. There were cardboard boxes (termed Samoan Samsonite I was told) everywhere – in the overhead bins, in people’s laps, in the aisles, and nobody seemed to mind, certainly not the stewardesses.  

The plane, which seemed horribly overloaded, lumbered down the runway, and as I was trying to figure out how I could get my daughter and myself up and around all those boxes to the emergency exit, the plane actually became airborne, and off we went, flying through the night sky. Six hours later we approached the Pago Pago airstrip that didn’t look big enough for a Piper Cub, and somehow the pilot nailed the landing like he was Nadia Comaneci. It was near midnight as we got off the plane, and there were my parents, of course, but there were also about twenty other people, all come to greet us. Twelve o’clock! That, I learned, was Samoa. You supported your friends, so this group came out to welcome us, but not only that. They also came to party, even though to some people it might seem a little late. As I was to learn during our brief stay, the people on the island made any event an excuse to celebrate. Off everyone went to my parents’ house where they brought out their guitars and sang and danced into the wee hours, long after my daughter and I collapsed and went to bed.

In the morning, my father rushed off to the market because it was rumored that a load of lettuce had come in. Again, I don’t know what it’s like today, but thirty years ago there wasn’t a regular supply of fresh produce, so everybody swooped in when it arrived. You also waited for television. Tape would actually be shipped in, so they would all gather for the Super Bowl, for example, days after it actually took place. Everyone on the island went into radio and newspaper silence for the days leading up to it, trying to avoid learning the results.  

For me, it was reassuring to see how well integrated my parents were. My mother played golf several times a week (that had been a requirement – a golf course) and was on a women’s bowling team, and the friendships they made were maintained after they left the island. Once home, my father, never one for retirement, went on assignment to the Superior Court in Santa Ana. It must have been something of an adjustment, having to wear a black robe again. In Samoa, he presided in a Hawaiian shirt and a lava lava [rectangular cloth worn as a skirt], although the lava lava was a decorous gray, in keeping with the dignity of the court.


Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to StuNewsNewport.